How OMB's guidance fails to prevent duplication at federal agencies

While all federal agencies receive direction from the Office of Management and Budget on how to report on their IT investments, the guidance is too vague and fails to  aid the identification of duplicative expenditures, according to a recent audit by the Government Accountability Office.

The audit revealed that the government squanders tens of billions of dollars every year on overlapping federal programs. IT gobbles up a big chunk of those funds. In 2011, there were approximately 7,200 investments totaling at least $79 billion. The Defense Department reported the largest number of IT investments at $37 billion, followed by the Energy Department which spent $2 billion on more than 875 investments.

One primary culprit, in GAO's view,  is the OMB guidance, which requires agencies to map all IT investments to a functional category and sub-category within the Federal Enterprise Architecture. The idea is that the categorizations help OMB and other agencies to analyze the investments and spot duplication.

However, GAO found that the OMB guidance does little to identity duplicative investments. One of the reasons is that agencies have different ideas on what to  categorize as an IT investment. For example, half of the 10 agencies GAO reviewed consistently consider investments in research and development systems as IT, and five don’t

The guidance also requires each investment to be mapped to a single functional category, which GAO said restricts OMB in identifying duplicative investments across agencies because similar investments may be under different categories.

There’s no lack of trying to fix the problem. OMB, for example, has worked to consolidate similar functions through its Federal Enterprise Architecture initiative which provides agencies with a common methodology for their IT architectures. However, GAO noted in 2004 the FEA was still evolving, and more recently OMB’s chief architect reported that changes to the FEA are planned for fiscal year 2012.

All agencies currently have framework in place that aims to ensure new investments aren’t duplicated. But as GAO pointed out in its newest report, “agencies do not routinely assess operational systems to determine if they are duplicative.”

Another contributing factor to the duplication problem is the misclassification by function. For example, the Homeland Security Department’s Federal Emergency Management Agency—Minor Personnel/Training Systems investment was initially categorized within the Employee Performance Management subfunction. DHS later decided to move it to the Human Resources Development subfunction.

In its latest recommendations, GAO proposed the CIOs at DOD, Energy and DHS correct the miscategorizations for the investments the watchdog identified. Additionally, the CIOs should use existing transparency mechanisms to report on the results of their efforts to identify and eliminate duplicative investments, GAO said.

About the Author

Camille Tuutti is a former FCW staff writer who covered federal oversight and the workforce.

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